Vultures are amazing birds, but they are often misunderstood. Learning just how unique these birds are can help you better appreciate their place in the world’s avifauna and how important their ongoing conservation is.
How many of these vulture bird facts do you know?
What Is a Vulture?
A vulture is a large bird of prey with a head and neck more or less bare of feathers. In different parts of the world and depending on the species, vultures may also be called buzzards or condors.
From distinctive physiological features to their important ecological role in the world, the following facts will get you acquainted with these very powerful fliers.
- Vultures have relatively bare heads and often bare necks, which prevents feathers from matting with blood when vultures are feeding on carcasses.
- Vultures have relatively weak legs and feet with blunt talons, though they do have powerful bills. If a carcass is too stiff for them to rip open, they will wait for another predator to open the flesh before they feed. This is why vultures are often seen with other carrion-eating animals such as hyenas, coyotes, and eagles.
- A vulture’s stomach acid is significantly stronger and more corrosive than that of other animals or birds. This allows these scavengers to feed on rotting carcasses that may be infected with dangerous bacteria, because the acid will kill that bacteria so it does not threaten the vulture.
- Vultures urinate on their legs and feet to cool off on hot days, a process called urohydrosis. Their urine also helps kill any bacteria or parasites they’ve picked up from walking through carcasses or perching on dead animals.
- New World vultures lack a syrinx (voicebox) and are nearly silent. They do not have songs, and their typical vocalizations are limited to grunts, hisses, bill clacks, and similar sounds that don't require complex vocal cords.
- The Andean condor, found in South America, has the largest wingspan of any vulture in the world, with a spread of 10 to 11 feet when the bird extends its wings.
- The crow-sized hooded vulture is one of the smallest of these birds, with a wingspan of only five feet. It is found in sub-Saharan Africa.
- Vultures are carnivorous and eat carrion almost exclusively. They prefer fresh meat but can consume carcasses that may have rotted so much that the meat can be toxic to other animals. This gives vultures a unique and important ecological role, because they help prevent the spread of diseases from rotting corpses.
- Vultures have excellent senses of sight and smell to help them locate food, and they can find a dead animal from a mile or more away. Because of this, vultures often have large territories and spend a lot of time soaring to locate their next meal.
- It is a myth that vultures circle dying animals waiting to feed. These birds are powerful fliers and soar on thermals (columns of rising air) while they look for food, but they cannot sense when an animal is dying. When they locate a carcass by smell, sight, or the sound of other birds feeding, they approach it quickly before other predators find it.
- While vultures eat mostly dead animals, they are capable of attacking and will often prey on extremely sick, wounded, or infirm prey. This is more common if food has been scarce and there are no carcasses nearby.
- It is a myth that vultures prey on healthy livestock, but they are still regularly persecuted by farmers and ranchers who believe the birds to be a threat to their animals. They may, however, prey on dead livestock and afterbirth or stillborn animals in breeding herds, though these incidents are rare.
- Because vultures have weak feet and legs, they do not carry prey back to their chicks. Instead, they will gorge at a carcass and regurgitate food from their crop to feed their young.
- Unlike many raptors, vultures are relatively social and often feed, fly, or roost in large flocks. A group of vultures is called a committee, venue, or volt. In flight, a flock of vultures is a kettle, and when the birds are feeding together at a carcass, the group is called a wake.
- When threatened, vultures vomit to lighten their body weight, so they can escape more easily into flight. Vomiting also serves as a defense mechanism to deter predators that may be threatening the birds.
- After mating, common black vultures do not build nests. Instead, they may lay their eggs directly on the ground, or lay them and nest in bare, dark cavities found in hollowed trees or stumps, caves, cliffs, abandoned buildings, or brush piles.
- There are 23 vulture species in the world, and at least one type of vulture is found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica.
- These are relatively adaptable birds found in a range of habitats, including suburbs, but even with that adaptability, 14 species are considered either threatened or endangered.
- Vulture species are divided into New World (the Americas and Caribbean) and Old World (Europe, Asia, and Africa) groups depending on their ranges. There are more vulture species in the Old World, and they are not closely related to New World vultures. The two groups are often considered together, however, because they fill a similar ecological niche. New World vultures may be more closely related to storks than to other raptors.
- Vultures face many threats that are endangering their populations. Poisoning is the biggest threat to vultures, primarily from toxins or lead in the carcasses they eat. Other hazards include car collisions as they feed on roadkill and electrocution from collisions with power lines.
- Scientists study vultures’ unique senses and abilities and are considering using the birds to help find bodies from crimes. Studying how a vulture finds a body and how quickly it can consume the body can be useful for forensic analysis.
- Vultures enjoy their own holiday, International Vulture Awareness Day, which is celebrated on the first Saturday of each September. Hundreds of zoos, aviaries, nature preserves, and bird refuges worldwide participate each year with fun and informational activities about vultures in helping everyone learn just how interesting and valuable these birds are.
What other names are vultures called?
Vultures are also known as condors and buzzards. In the United States, when someone uses the term "buzzard," they are generally referring to the turkey vulture (also known as a turkey buzzard or carrion crow).
What is a flock of vultures called?
Depending on what they're doing at the time, a flock of vultures is known by different names. If they are in a grouping, they are called a committee or volt, but when they're in flight, they're called a kettle. Vultures that are feeding together are called a wake.
Can a vulture smell a dead animal?
Amazingly a vulture can detect a dead animal (through the scent of gases released during decomposition) from over a mile away and will locate it with their exceptional sight and sense of smell.
Prada, Paola A, and Kenneth G Furton. Birds and Dogs: Toward a Comparative Perspective on Odor Use and Detection. Frontiers in veterinary science vol. 5 188. 14 Aug. 2018, doi:10.3389/fvets.2018.00188